Downtown small businesses are having to adapt to weather this COVID storm for business survival. It is important for city officials to encourage local businesses to try tools that have been working, like transitioning to e-commerce and carry-out for restaurants.
Some cities around the country are working with utility companies to keep lights on and water running for small businesses. The most important programs are those that provide grants to help these businesses. Despite the many challenges that businesses are facing right now, there are several cities across Georgia using their Downtown Development programs to work with businesses to plan and adapt for the future through creativity and just plain grit. Below are four examples of cities that are doing just that.
CITY OF MONROE
In the city of Monroe, Sadie Krawczyk, director of the Office of Economic Development, leveraged existing communication channels with downtown businesses and committed customers to quickly share information about resources for recovery and changes to business operations. The communication channels included a closed Facebook group for downtown businesses and a bi-monthly email newsletter to 3,300+ downtown customers. This opened the door for Krawczyk’s office to become a reliable communication source for businesses.
Monroe put real skin in the game by facilitating a stabilization grant through the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) for up to $2,500 for businesses that faced significant hardship. Through this program, the DDA impacted 52 businesses and preserved 375 jobs. The program was a real game changer, helping businesses stay open.
The DDA program also sponsored a campaign to encourage people to support downtown businesses by making a least a $25 purchase. Customers would send in a copy of shopping receipts to receive a free hammock. The hammocks were left-over from a previous promotion a few years ago, and this simple campaign prompted shoppers to turn in more than $7,300 in receipts over a single weekend!
The DDA started selling 2020 event shirts, which ironically celebrated all the events that will not be occurring this year. With each t-shirt purchased, it covered the cost of the t-shirt and then sent $10 to the business of the buyers’ choice. This event raised $460 for 18 different businesses.
During this time, the city focused on outdoor enhancements such as adding additional picnic tables and benches and creating a permanent scavenger hunt for people to enjoy whenever they are visiting downtown. Downtown Monroe has remained a place full of meaning and significance for the community, and because of this, it is helping people feel connected to one another during this potentially isolating time.
CITY OF NEWNAN
Courtney Harcourt, director for the Main Street/DDA program, established the Brick and Click Grant Program to encourage business expansion and retention by providing resources to business owners to invest in e-commerce. The widespread use of innovative information technologies has drastically transformed the business environment.
The traditional brick-and-mortar distribution systems have defied all odds to remain relevant in the supply chain, and e-commerce has become a complementary transaction channel to ensure the business remains competitive with online stores. Having this online presence allowed businesses to enhance accessibility, garner a wider audience, build relationships and consumer trust and enabled effortless marketing.
The purpose of this grant program was to provide a matching grant to downtown businesses for creation or improvement of their online presence. Applicants were eligible for a matching grant up to $500, since the product must be a service or tool that exists within the existing brick-and-mortar storefront to ensure that it wouldn’t encourage businesses to move strictly to an e-commerce site. The Point of Sale systems submitted must collect local sales tax.
The city of Newnan, alongside the Downtown Development program, established a new temporary ordinance to assist business owners with recovery by motivating businesses to move outdoors. The ordinance allows for businesses to request to occupy more than 50% of their existing storefront for conducting outdoor services. Businesses may also request to use neighboring properties, and public spaces to include sidewalks, parking spaces, alleys and bump-outs.
Most of the restaurants in Downtown Newnan have taken advantage of the additional sidewalk spaces, and there are a handful of businesses that have featured parklets (a small seating area created as a public amenity along the sidewalk or in a parking space). The city has dedicated two curbside parking spaces on each street within the central business district as parklets. The new temporary ordinance also allowed for alcohol to be openly consumed in downtown, Monday through Saturday, 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. In addition to this ordinance, downtown business owners were given five free months of sanitation and common-space maintenance services, and an extension on paying occupational taxes (business licenses).
Newnan’s downtown development staff have also started hosting a handful of events; however, a majority of Newnan’s 2020 event calendar has remained canceled. The city has been very strategic in considering all safety options when hosting events within the downtown district. For example, during the Main Street’s monthly Market Day event, vendors were spaced 10 feet apart on closed streets at half-capacity, encouraged to wear PPE and provided sanitizing options for customers. Sampling was not allowed, and vendors encouraged their patrons to social distance while in line. The downtown development staff provided signage, sanitizing stations and options to access masks by request.
Newnan’s 43rd annual Sunrise on the Square Road Race took place Labor Day weekend as an in-person race, and an online race-in-place. The downtown development staff released a limited number of runners in person by various time slots to ensure that social distancing was considered and encouraged. All registration took place in advance online, as well as packet pick-up. Runners were given bottled water in advance; there was no food tables, water stops, or an award ceremony.
The Downtown Development Office has also started hosting outdoor “walks” as promotions and opportunities for business owners to operate outdoors. This includes the “Forward Fridays” event on the first Friday of the month and an Art Walk. Retailers stay open late during both events and are asked to bring business into parking spaces and public areas. The businesses spread out their displays and assist to manage social distancing and safe conduct. Business owners encourage specials and promotions during Forward Fridays. They also feature an outdoor art demonstration during the Art Walk where guests stroll the district to see over 30 demonstrations. The new alcohol ordinance complements both events, and the downtown development staff hopes to continue to layer programming if conditions begin to improve. This could include hiring buskers to move through the district and may someday result in closing the streets again for live music. Staff have heard very positive responses from the community about the city’s modest promotions as business is conducted safely and thoughtfully.
CITY OF BAINBRIDGE
Amanda Glover, director of the DDA with the city of Bainbridge, did not realize how important the existing outdoor seating area in the city’s town square, Willis Park, would be during COVID-19. To accommodate the increased number of park users, the DDA accomplished one of its 2020 work plan items by adding additional seating areas with five sets of table and chairs, yards games and music streaming from the gazebo. The DDA’s goal with the new space was to create an additional area that made people feel comfortable and safe while enjoying all the benefits of shopping and dining in Downtown Bainbridge.
Also, having an existing open container district within the downtown proved to be an added benefit. The combination of the two allowed downtown businesses to stay steadfast and strong in an environment where indoor space constraints dictated that restaurants reduce or even eliminate dining room seating to comply with State Health directives.
Just months prior to the pandemic, the Downtown Station, a public restroom facility, opened across from city hall. Hand washing stations were added in key locations.
Most recently, the Bainbridge City Council approved a policy for the installation of interim parklet seating areas in the city right-of-way. The city council recognized restaurants play a key role in the vitality of the Downtown Bainbridge business district and have faced significant economic challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall, the benefits of having designated outdoor dining areas, an open container district, public restrooms, and hand washing stations helps support local businesses, increases walkability and fosters a sense of community.
CITY OF SAVANNAH
Cities across Georgia have made great strides in creating adaptive ways to do business. Not only have businesses adapted, but companies have also realized that teleworking is working, and they can reduce their overall budgets by not providing office space. This opens the door for local officials to have a real conversation about what it means when companies decide to allow permanent teleworking. Workers would be able to live/work anywhere in the state.
An example of a city thinking innovatively about recruiting workers to their community is the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA). The SEDA is offering a Savannah Technology Workforce Incentive to reimburse moving expenses up to $2,000 for up to 50 qualified technology workers currently located outside of Chatham County and who will move to Savannah before the end of the year. The city of Savannah sees the importance of recruiting tech workers to their city.
ADAPTING FOR AN URBAN WORKFORCE
Cities can play a role in adapting for a future workforce that will want the same amenities offered to them by living in an urban area such as live/ work/play options as well as access to outdoor spaces
and trails. City officials in smaller communities can start planning for live/work/play nodes as well as providing more outdoor spaces and trails.
Young educated employees will seek a less car-centric lifestyle, affordable housing, less congestion, good schools and live/work/play lifestyles. If small towns want to capture this market, they will need to place focus on their schools and live/work/play environments and provide infrastructure such as trails, calmer streets, pedestrian green space and parks and safe routes to school and work for pedestrians and cyclist. Cities can develop greenspace and trail master plans, allocate funding locally as well as seek other funding options to implement these plans, as well as establish those live/work/play to draw in millennials with families as well as other market segments of the workforce to smaller downtowns. The Path Foundation states that trails are becoming an essential component of the effort to retain and attract younger residents and workers.
Providing more outdoor recreation opportunities not only benefits locals, tourists will also seek out communities that offer those experiences. The Outdoor Industry Association reports that outdoor recreation in Georgia generates $27.3 billion in consumer spending annually which results in $1.8 billion in state and local tax revenue. From this industry, we find 238,000 direct jobs (ahead of the auto industry which offers 207,000), resulting in $8.1 billion in wages and salaries. Fifty-eight percent of Georgia residents participate in outdoor recreation each year which includes hiking, trail running, fishing, biking, camping and hunting.
By creating infrastructure to support the future workforce, cities encourage the entrepreneurial spirit for opening breweries, coffee shops, restaurants and retail. Cities that invest in outdoor environments, affordable housing and quality education will thrive economically and socially.
This article appears in the September/October edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.